My family's tradition of orally passing down recipes went on hiatus the day I reached back into my mind for dad's Kashmiri lamb dish, salan walah chawal, and drew a blank.
Dad had died from cancer at home in New Delhi two years before, and the recipes I'd taken from his computer in a large file the very last time I'd seen him had corrupted.
However, I had some recipes in handwritten form; when I was in my early teens in Australia, dad had stood with a pen at the stove beside Ammie, my Kashmiri grandmother (his mother) as she cooked. Dad had been preparing spice notes for Ammie to teach my mum's friends. Ammie had never written a recipe before. This was dad's attempt to capture some of his mother in recipe form. I had been given those recipes years later when I left home, but when I searched the plastic folder, I found that the menu section where salan walah chawal should've been was missing.
As a dish, salan walah chawal is deceptively simple; it's a one-pot mutton or lamb dish known for its cardamom flavour. It is classic Kashmiri Pandit food: elegant, exquisitely subtle and as delicious to eat as it is time-consuming to prepare.
As a kid, salan walah chawal was not high up on my list of favourite meals. It was far beneath dad's aloo and mutton curry and only moderately above mum's meatloaf and mashed potato. The aroma was difficult, shall we say. Black cardamom is distinct and punchy in salan walah chawal. Garam masala helps bring out cardamom's subtler characteristics of smoke and char, but it isn't balanced much further. Additionally, the cardamom pods remain in the dish, so, just like a coin in Christmas pudding, you need to avoid biting into them.
I can't recall why the urge to know the recipe again had become so urgent. But after dad's death, my grief comes in waves and I often find myself wanting to connect with him by cooking the dishes he made. But of all the meals dad cooked, and my dad cooked, it were the pieces of him in that particular dish that I knew I had to find.
My attempts to find his recipe ultimately failed. I couldn't find it in my Indian cookbooks nor the Kashmiri cookbook written by a great aunt, who I consider a spice mistress. I drew out my laptop and went online in defeat - maybe a recipe via a Google search would do. When I read the first search result, I dropped my laptop and cried, "Alok Ganju's salan walah chawal!" Anup Nath Ganju is my dad's name. Alok is my uncle, my dad's youngest sibling.
"I've been waiting for you to call," were his first words to me down the phone line from Bangalore to Western Australia's Margaret River before I'd even said hello. "Of all the people, I knew it would be you.
"I didn't know," I sobbed. "I couldn't find dad's recipe. I lost it. And then I looked and I saw you." I couldn't talk for crying.
"Calm down beti," he soothed. Beti. Daughter. I cried harder: "I didn't know."
"What you seek, seeks you."
What I didn't know was that our family's Kashmiri Pandit salan walah chawal dish had that morning been published in the Goya Journal, an Indian online publication that's devoted to telling the stories of ancestral Indian food. Somehow I found it. Chachu, my uncle, didn't think it strange. He had felt me all the way back home in India, thousands of miles from Australia's bush landscapes.
"What you seek, seeks you," a friend said when I told her the story in the following days. Her own father did not have much time left.
I don't know if this is a story of a recipe, but I'm sure this is a story of nourishment. I read that article in the Goya Journal and heard dad in every word. I saw dad's stovetop. I tasted the black cardamom pods and I felt the loss of a person who mattered almost above all others.
The next day I went to the butcher. And I cooked.
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Kashmiri salan walah chawal (lamb and rice)
- 2 tbsp sunflower oil
- 4 tbsp ghee, heaped
- 375 ml (1½ cups) yoghurt
- ¼ tsp powdered asafoetida or a few drops of asafoetida water.
- 1 kg fat-trimmed lamb shoulder, cubed in 4 cm x 4 cm pieces
- 8 lamb bones, cut into 5 cm x 5 cm pieces
- 1½ tsp salt
- 2 cups Basmati rice
- 2 cups water
- 1 tbsp yoghurt
- ½ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
- ⅓ tsp ginger powder
- ¼ tsp asafoetida powder of a few drops of asafoetida water (see Note)
- ½ tsp medium red chilli powder
- ½ tsp ginger powder
- ½ tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
- 4 tsp coriander ground, heaped
- 1 tsp fresh ginger paste
- 3 tsp cumin seed
- 8-10 cloves
- 5 black cardamom pods, lightly crushed
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 tsp garam masala, heaped
- Salt, to taste
- Cook sunflower oil and ghee into a heavy-based pot and heat on medium-high. When hot, add the yoghurt and stir immediately. It should spit and sizzle. Straight away, add the asafoetida and stir through.
- Add cubed lamb, lamb bones and salt. Allow the lamb to release its water, stir occasionally with a metal spoon as the yoghurt and ghee cook down. This should take 30 to 40 minutes. You will see the fat cook away, the lamb begins to stick, and the oil from the meat split, brown and then clear. Cook this oil down until no more than a thin layer on the pot’s base. Turn the heat down to medium if the lamb begins to burn.
- While the lamb, yoghurt and ghee are cooking down, repeatedly rinse two cups of rice in a large bowl under cold running water four or five times, until the water runs almost clear. When finished, covert rice with water and leave to soak.
- To make the chilli water, combine water, yoghurt and spice and stir well and set aside.
- Once the lamb, ghee and yoghurt have cooked down, begin browning the lamb with a metal spoon in small portions of the chilli water - around 2 tbsp at a time - on medium to medium-low heat. Wait until each addition of chilli water has cooked down before adding more. The lamb should be stirred during the browning process to remove the caramelised pieces from the bottom and sides of the pan. This process is slow and will take from 60 minutes to 90 minutes depending on the width of your pot. A wider heavy-used pot will brown faster (see Note).
- Once the meat has cooked, open the pot, add the pre-soaked rice with four cups of water, 1 tsp salt and garam masala and cook on low heat until no water remains. This will take around 30 minutes.
- When the rice is dry, cover with the lid, lined with a tea towel inside to catch condensation and help the end dish to dry. Place on a griddle or a pot rest over low flame and cook for 13 to 15 minutes on very low. When done, the rice grains should be separated and standing up along their lengths and the meat will be tender. Serve with fresh parsley and raita.
• Asafoetida water is made by dissolving a pinkie fingernail amount of asafoetida resin in two cups of water until opaque. Keep in a sealed jar in the fridge. Asafoetida resin is softer than powdered asafoetida, and so is used at intervals through the cooking process. A mild ground red chilli can be used to replace Kashmiri chilli powder.
• If you have a pressure cooker, transfer the meat to the pressure cooker at this point, add the masala, cover the meat with water and cook under pressure for 15 minutes over medium-high heat, or until the meat is cooked. Without a pressure cooker, keep the meat in the heavy-based pot, add the masala and enough water to cover the meat and cook on medium-high heat for seven minutes, then turn to medium heat and cook for another 35 to 40 minutes or until the lamb is tender.
Photography, styling and food preparation by Sarina Kamini.